A New Era In The Women’s 800: With Caster Semenya Exiting, Ajee’ Wilson Is Poised To Take Over As World #1

By Jonathan Gault
May 29, 2019

On Thursday, for the first time since 2015, a Diamond League women’s 800-meter race will be won by an athlete that does not have XY chromosomes and elevated levels of testosterone.

That’s right. From May 2016 to May 2019, all 22 Diamond League women’s 800s were won by either Caster Semenya or Francine Niyonsaba, neither of whom, under IAAF rules, are currently eligible to compete in a Diamond League women’s 800 as both refuse to take medication to reduce their testosterone levels. They became ineligible earlier this month when the Court of Arbitration of Sport ruled against Semenya in a landmark case that upheld the IAAF’s restrictions on athletes with 46 XY DSD competing in the women’s category in events between the 400 and the mile. As a result, neither of them will be running in the women’s 800 at the BAUHAUS-galan meet in Stockholm on Thursday, the third meet of the 2019 Diamond League season. As an event, the women’s 800 is about to change, massively. The question is, how?

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For one thing, expect the winning times to be slower. Niyonsaba and, especially, Semenya were capable of producing times that no woman with XX chromosomes could reach. The result was significantly faster winning times compared to the three years before the IAAF’s suspension of its hyperandrogenism guidelines late in the 2015 season.

Average Diamond League women’s 800 winning times, 2013-2018

2013 1:58.51*
2014 1:58.85
2015 1:58.77
2016 1:56.84
2017 1:57.00
2018 1:56.14

*Niyonsaba won three of these races, including the two fastest times of the DL season

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The three-year average from 2016-2018 — the three years in which Semenya and Niyonsaba were able to compete without lowering their testosterone levels — was 1:56.66. For context, over the last 10 years, only two non-hyperandrogenous women, American Ajee’ Wilson and Jamaican Natoya Goule, have run faster than 1:56.66.

So we’ll see fewer crazy fast times, and not just because Semenya and Niyonsaba won’t be running them. They also won’t be there to tow the likes of Wilson and Goule to big personal bests, such as when Wilson chased Semenya to her American record in Monaco two years ago. In fact, Wilson’s six fastest times of her career all came in races won by Semenya; her fastest time in a race that was not won by Semenya is 1:57.52, almost two full seconds slower than her 1:55.61 American record.

Now that Semenya is out of the 800, who will become the new World #1? Wilson, 25, seems poised to take over the top spot. She was the runner-up at World Indoors behind Niyonsaba in 2016 and 2018 and the bronze medalist at world outdoors behind Semenya and Niyonsaba in 2017; her 1:55.61 in Monaco in 2017 was the fastest time by an XX woman this decade. Wilson also finished third — again behind Semenya and Niyonsaba — at the 2019 Diamond League opener in Doha on May 3.

But there’s no chance Wilson will be as dominant as Semenya, who never lost an 800 final from 2016-2019. It’s hard to remember, but the 800 is traditionally one of the most unpredictable events in track & field — witness recent unlikely world champions like Maryna Arzamasova of Belarus and Pierre-Ambroise Bosse of France. Even if Wilson establishes herself as the best in the world, she’s still vulnerable to an upset. Semenya never was.

Wilson broke the American indoor record for 800 meters at Millrose in February (Photo by Phil Bond)

Wilson and her competitors will also have to race differently. In many DL events and championship finals during the Semenya era, the women’s 800 essentially became an all-out test of fitness for most of the field — stay as close to Semenya for as long as you could. Tactics were minimized. Now Wilson will have to do a lot more thinking during races, and everyone will be keying off her for as long as she remains the top dog. Not everyone can handle running as the favorite, though Wilson does seem suited to the task given she’s been untouchable in that role domestically in recent years and was among the very best in the world in 2014 and 2015 before the IAAF rules change.

One more change: ever since Semenya returned to her world-beating form in 2016, she has been the dominant storyline in the women’s 800, debates ranging from whether anyone would ever beat her to how long she would be able to continue competing in the women’s category. Regardless of where you stand on the latter issue, it has been resolved (well, at least until Athletics South Africa launches its appeal against the CAS ruling to the Swiss Federal Tribunal). Which means we can finally talk about some of the other women who have spent the last three years in Semenya’s shadow.

It should be fascinating to watch how those women, such as Wilson, Goule, and Lynsey Sharp, adjust to a drastically different 800-meter landscape. Canada’s Melissa Bishop, the 2015 world silver medalist and fourth placer at the 2016 Olympics (behind Semenya, Niyonsaba, and another hyperandrogenous athlete, Margaret Wambui), is back after missing 2018 to give birth to her daughter. How will she fit in? And who will win the world title this year? That’s a question that, unlike in years past, is no longer a foregone conclusion.

The new era begins in Stockholm on Thursday.

BAUHAUS-galan women’s 800 entries

Name Country PB SB
Habitam Alemu Ethiopia 1:56.71 2:00.61
Renee Eykens Belgium 2:00.00 2:03.01
Natoya Goule Jamaica 1:56.15 2:00.96
Hanna Hermansson Sweden 2:00.43 2:03.21
Nelly Jepkosgei Kenya 1:58.96 1:59.00
Lovisa Lindh Sweden 1:58.77
Raevyn Rogers USA 1:57.69 1:59.07
Lynsey Sharp Great Britain 1:57.69 2:01.51
Ajee’ Wilson USA 1:55.61 1:58.83
Noelie Yarigo Benin 1:59.12 2:02.50

More: Talk about the women’s 800 on our world famous messageboard/fan forum: MB: With Caster Semenya out, a new era for the women’s 800 begins in Stockholm on Thursday. Will Ajee take over as #1?

*LRC What No One Is Telling You About Caster Semenya: She Has XY Chromosomes

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